Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) November 2009

Defining Technology Down

Neil Seeman

If you study the history of the word "technology," you'll find that it once meant something different from what it means today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), antiquarian Sir George Buck first used the word in 1615 in "A Discourse or Treatise of the third universitie of England". The OED defines its early usage as "a discourse or treatise on an art or arts; the scientific study of the practical or industrial arts."


Yet to most people today, technology is the opposite of art, the antithesis of practical arts such as woodwork or knitting. Yes, knitting.

Nowadays the word "technology" is associated in our minds with massive capital, or "R&D". As such, people are scared of technology, while in the past they relished it. True, we love our Blackberries™ and iPhones™. But ask your friend their definition of technology and you will likely get the "huge capital" definition. Ask a healthcare provider their definition of technology and you may well meet with resistance and anxiety. Yet if you define technology down - as simple, low-tech and practical - you might get a warmer reception.

It's time we returned to the original definition of technology. For patients, for consumers of all sorts, the future of technology has more to do with language and design than with mainframes. As Ron Ashkenas points out in a recent essay, a greater number of companies are touting their products' simplicity. (He points, for example, to Philips' advertisement for "sense and simplicity" and Schwab's "Talk to Chuck" campaign).

The Philips ad is instructive. The campaign markets itself virally through YouTube™. The ad consists of one plain white box, with hands stretching in one after the next to lift off the box top.

Hand/voice 1 (in white lab coat): "I see technology that has humanity." #2 (boy): "I see technology even my Dad can deal with." #3 (elderly woman): "I see technology that doesn't make me feel inadequate." # 4 (middle-age man): "I see technology that makes sense." Final hand/voice (a Philips representative): "I see technology that's as simple as the box it comes in."

Slowly, led by simplicity companies such as Google™ and Twitter™, business leaders are beginning to learn about the "power of less." This editorial on explains the phenomenon well: "Practicing the art of less, whether it's agile development, minimalist business plans or spare graphic design, has had a momentum all its own during the rise of Web 2.0. But the art of less got a significant boost since economic conditions deteriorated, and less became the one thing we all had plenty of." Healthcare should pay heed to this.

Healthcare Technology and the Art of Less

The "massive capital" definition of technology is more pronounced in healthcare than in other sectors. If you search Google for the phrase "healthcare IT," you will be smacked with ads for EMRs, DI/PACS and HL7 and CRM "interface applications". If, however, technology is seen as a "practical art," we might dress the language down a bit, and start with the problem we're trying to solve rather than with the gadgetry. For example, consider Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. Its elegance lies in its simplicity. You may use only one sheet of paper. No glue is allowed.

One message of simplicity is to start with your goal. If most people want to use their cell phone for talking, then design a cell phone for that purpose. Young people, most marketers used to think, liked jazzy new applications. Recent research shows that university students prefer simple practicality.

Gilles Frydman, founder of the online social network for cancer patients, the Association for Cancer Online Resources (ACOR), and Vice President of the Society for Participatory Medicine, told me recently that "technology will only become successful when it disappears." Come again?

ACOR elegantly organizes a huge collection of simple, cancer-related Internet mailing lists, sending regular emails to over 1.5 million subscribers across the globe. Gilles, a global pioneer in the intelligent organization and synthesis of health information on the Web, taught me that technology only matters when "you stop talking about the bells and whistles." Another thing he taught me is that we - and that likely means most people reading this essay - are "all too old for this stuff."

Several teenagers have advised me that the definition of good technology is something that requires no manual to understand. This is the mantra of leading teen-friendly brands, notably Apple's Mac™ - ready-to-use when you open the box. People under 25 will never read an instruction manual. Will healthcare technology ever take this level of simplicity seriously?

There are more than 100,000 Google™ references to the phrase, "easiest to use cell phone". On technology forums, consumers share tips and advice on which technology is simplest. Here's an example: On one forum, one gentleman says: "I'm looking for a new cell phone for a loved one, and it must be EXTREMELY simple to use. I am talking about one button to check voice mail, with no need to enter in a password (no need for extensive security as the adult using it will never discuss sensitive info). The amount of buttons should be a minimum number to get the job done; no specialized features required."


… if innovation awards were given to companies whose products were evaluated in terms of their simplicity. As Gilles Frydman notes, "user-interface is a very difficult science." This is why our Innovation Cell has a "director of simplicity": to remind us of where we all need to go. It eludes healthcare now, but tomorrow we will run slower. Less is more; less is beautiful.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto. The Cell specializes in making sense of online patient conversations around the world.


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